Stranded- page 2 | History | Air & Space Magazine
When seven men got stuck in a grim patch of Greenland in 1948, the Air Force sent a B-17 to rescue them, but it got mired in soft snow (top of montage), only worsening the predicament. (USAF)

Stranded

Four aircraft, 12 airmen, 25 days, 40 below zero, in the middle of nowhere.

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(Continued from page 1)

At Westover, “we received word about the Troop Carrier Command sending another glider, and that we would all arrive together at Goose Bay, Labrador [Canada], coordinating our activities. The weather was beginning to play an important factor and it looked like we would have problems being able to stay VFR [Visual Flight Rules].

“We left Westover…. The C-54 had a tendency to keep the glider at top redline on the airspeed indicator, and I was constantly pleading to slow down or we might end up losing the glider. As we progressed on our way towards Canada, the weather continued to deteriorate. We were now flying over an overcast and the holes in the clouds were fast disappearing. Night arrived with solid overcast below. At this time I was wondering what kind of weather we had at our destination. The report from the C-54 was that our destination [Seven Islands, in Quebec] had at least 2000 feet and 3 miles or more visibility. I believe we had a small discussion about continuing the flight and all agreed to proceed. I thought about cutting loose when we arrived over the radio beacon at our destination and then about an instrument approach in the glider. One small item was missing. The glider did not have any approach charts. I started asking questions: where the field was located from beacon, what type of obstructions and what the terrain was like? Were there such things as mountains or hills that could get in the way? What are the minimums?…

“My young friend again rode in the opposite seat…. He never sensed the developing problems and I saw no need to tell him. I figured it would be best not to go into details so he could continue to enjoy the ride.

“By the time we arrived over the beacon, there were no holes to let down through. All of a sudden the C-54 started a letdown and I knew then and there we were on our way to making an instrument approach. As we descended and entered the clouds, I thought immediately that the C-54 should turn on their landing lights, thereby, I had a chance of staying in visible contact with the C-54. It worked wonderfully. As we let down the C-54 was just a small silhouette with a circle of light around it. To me, it was a beautiful sight. When we broke out of the clouds, there were hardly any lights to see on the ground. It was practically pitch dark. But in a minute or so, we came upon the airfield and received landing instructions. I asked the C-54 to put the glider on downwind and then I would cut loose. As I pulled the release lever, I felt exalted and I had lost a little tenseness that had built up during the let down. Boy! It felt great to touch down and clear the runway….”

Later, the pilot of the tow airplane, Calvin Jackson, wrote of Murl’s landing-lights innovation: “This was a dramatic accomplishment and the Canadian people on the base lined up to greet the crew. Murl Chamberlain should have received a medal for that dramatic aviation event.”

The following day, Murl and his crewmate flew to Goose Bay, Labrador, arriving on December 16. He wrote: “Later, we found out our counter parts from Troop Carrier Command had aborted and had returned to their place of departure. The weather was a little more than what they could handle.”

The Troop Carrier glider and crew arrived a few days later. “Their attitude was arrogant and very uncooperative,” writes Murl.

“…Their entire attitude was that the 10th Rescue Squadron had no business flying gliders and that they were the only ones that were specially trained for this type of flying. None the less, I believe we gave them a lesson that we could arrive under severe weather conditions, when their pilots gave up and turned tail for home.”

The two units now had to coordinate efforts. “I did not get in on the meetings that took place,” Murl writes, “but when they were over it appeared that the 10th Air Rescue Squadron came up on the short end of the stick. I was now reduced to a co-pilot and a captain from Troop Carrier would be the first pilot. Right off, he let me know that he was in command and that I was his co-pilot. My commander [Bernt Balchen] gave some lame excuse and wanted to know if I went along with what was going on. Under the circumstances I couldn’t or did not want to mess up the rescue, or delay any part of it, because of any disappointment and I had a keen sense of duty that came before my pride. The other glider was to be flown by two lieutenants from the Troop Carrier Command.”

UP AT THE CRASH SITE, the men had perhaps three hours of sunlight each day. The crew of the B-17 rescue airplane used torches and other tools to carve out a comfortable shelter in the ice and survived on supplies air-dropped to them, including heaters. But the C-47 crew decided they should stay in their frigid airplane. “After about six hours,” wrote Calvin Jackson, “one of the [C-47] members…made up his own mind that he was going to die that night. He felt that he had one obligation to go down to the B-17 crew and bid them farewell. He climbed out of his sleeping bag, got dressed, and went down to the B-17 crew apartment, and there he found them with steaks frying, the bar was set up, the place was lined with [para­chute] silk as fine as any Arabian tent could possibly be, the radios going, and they were sitting there playing gin rummy as cozy and roast as they would be if they were in their downtown apartment in New York.” The C-47 crewman ran back and told his crew mates what he had found. Eventually, “all of the crew members on the C-47 were in larger shelters and there was an underground community with apartments, everyone rejoicing, and surviving in fine condition thanks to the outstanding work done by the B-17 crew members.”

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